No place for Ajit Singh's RLD in SP-Congress alliance in UP
With Tuesday, 24 January, being the deadline for filing nominations for the first phase of the Uttar Pradesh elections, all signals suggest that the Rashtriya Lok Dal will not be part of the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance.
SP vice-president Kiranmoy Nanda, in a statement, made it clear that while the SP will contest on more than 300 seats, the Congress will contest on the rest of the seats for the 403-member Assembly.
"We have been told this afternoon that party is going to contest alone," one of the likely SP candidates from a western UP constituency told Catch.
The RLD was reportedly unhappy at the offer of 22-23 seats, but the SP and the Congress were unwilling to part with any more.
Talks with the SP
While the RLD, according to top sources in the party, had an understanding with the Congress, there were no formal talks of an alliance with the SP directly. It was the Congress's poll strategist, Prashant Kishor, who was keen on the RLD being a member of the alliance.
Talks with the SP had almost ended after the SP's 25th anniversary celebration rally in Lucknow on 6 November, where Ajit Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadav had shared the stage with other constituents of the Janata Pariwar.
Days after that, Mulayam, in a clear message to the RLD, had announced that there would be no alliance, and that any party looking for seat sharing was free to merge with the SP.
Before the rally, senior SP leader Shivpal Yadav was in talks with the RLD leadership. However, after the rally and Mulayam's statement, and especially once the civil war within the SP came to the fore, the talks came to a halt.
Later in November, in an apparent bid to pressure the SP, the Janata Dal (United) and the RLD had announced that they would contest the elections together.
Meanwhile, as it became increasingly clear that Mulayam Singh was not in the driving seat anymore, the RLD leadership was still hopeful of becoming a part of the alliance and getting a sizeable number of seats. All of December, RLD sources claim, no side reached out to them with a concrete plan for an alliance.
There were, however, some positive signals from Akhilesh Yadav's team, according to sources. Just before the 13 January Election Commission of India hearing, about which faction of the SP would retain the 'cycle' election symbol, some members of Akhilesh's team reached out to the RLD, asking it to wait for a couple of days. The sources added that around this time, Mulayam's faction also reached out to it.
BJP national president Amit Shah also reached out to the RLD before the party's first list came out. According to the grapevine, the BJP offered it a little less than 20 seats, and also gave it an option to merge.
RLD sources, however, had earlier pointed out that an alliance with the BJP was out of the question, for it would lead to the death of the party if it were to transfer its Jat votes and antagonise whatever little Muslim support the party still had.
Negotiations with the Congress
The Congress, which is now likely to get 105-108 seats in its alliance with the SP, had offered around 22-23 seats to the RLD, according to sources. However, a top RLD functionary told Catch that the party would not settle for that number.
That's perhaps one of the reasons why talks have come to nought.
There were differences on some specific seats as well, insiders say. Shamli, where the Congress has a sitting MLA and the RLD was not ready to forego, is a prime example.
In the 2012 Assembly elections, the RLD had contested on 46 seats in alliance with the Congress, and polled an average of 20% votes on the seats it contested.
However, its chances in its western UP stronghold diminished after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. Its agriculturist Jat-Muslim vote bank, crafted by former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, fell apart due to the ghastly riots, with the Jats switching their allegiance to the BJP and helping it and its allies win an unprecedented 73 out of 80 seats in UP in the 2014 general election. As a result, the RLD, which had polled 18 lakh votes in 2012, could bag a little more than six lakh votes in 2014.
The RLD, in fact, has been on a downswing for a decade now. In 2007, it had bagged 61% of the Jat vote, whereas in 2012, the number came down to 45%. In terms of the Muslim vote, too, the party went from 8% in 2007 to 1% in 2012.
Jat consolidation on the cards?
The RLD's declining fortunes are probably why the SP leadership - whether Mulayam's camp or Akhilesh's - wasn't too keen on an alliance. In the sugarcane belt, Muslims are a key constituency, and the SP feared that allying with the RLD would alienate them, given the post-Muzaffarnagar Jat-Muslim tensions and the RLD's Jat identity.
"It would be like gifting our Muslim votebank to the BSP," a senior SP MP from the Muslim community had told this reporter earlier this month. "When Ajit Singh goes to the elections, his Jat identity comes to the fore. That could hurt our prospects," the MP had said. The BSP has been trying hard to eat into the SP's Muslim vote bank, and has handed out tickets to more than 95 Muslim candidates this time around.
The RLD itself believes that the Jats will come back into its fold this time, since the community is unhappy with the way things have panned out since they voted for the BJP in 2014, especially on the issue of Jat reservations.
Political pundits believe the RLD is in a catch-22 situation. They feel that going it alone in these polls will probably be the best strategy for it. By doing so, it could consolidate its Jat vote bank and make the party more relevant in the 2019 general elections.